AB 511 Signed – Forces Federal Safety Standards for Ag-Flying Aircraft

Governor Signs Yamada Bill That Strengthens Protections For Agricultural Pilots – AB 511 requires wind energy companies to conform to federal safety standards for low-flying aircraft

SACRAMENTO, CA –Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 511, legislation that will help save the lives of pilots who fly near unmarked and nearly invisible meteorological evaluation towers (METs).   Assemblymember Yamada and her staff have worked for two years to overcome wind energy industry opposition to this common sense measure.

“With the Governor’s signature yesterday, wind energy companies in California will no longer be able to skirt Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety requirements for marking METs when they are constructed just under the existing 200 feet federal standard,” said Yamada.

On January 10, 2011, Stephen Allen, an experienced and respected agricultural pilot from Courtland, lost his life when his plane struck an unmarked MET while seeding a field at Webb Tract in Contra Costa County.  Witnesses at the scene claimed Allen never attempted to avoid the tower, indicating he likely never saw it before crashing into it.  FAA standards require towers 200 feet and higher to be clearly marked with alternating bands of orange and white, and other visual cues.  The MET that ended Mr. Allen’s life in 2011 was legally unmarked at 198 feet tall.

Meeting California’s highest-in-the-nation renewable portfolio standard of 33 percent by 2020 will require more reliance on wind energy.  Wind farm developers use METs to measure wind currents to find the best locations for new wind farms.  Developers erect these towers  to almost 200 feet high (just short of FAA regulation) on rural and isolated lands, assembling them nearly overnight using a skinny galvanized steel pole stabilized by guy wires.  These combined factors make each MET a potential deadly hazard for low-flying pilots.  The pole and guy wires are invisible half a mile out.  In addition, “overnight” construction means a pilot is not expecting a tower the next day.

Responding to wind energy opposition, Assemblymember Yamada amended AB 511 to restrict marking requirements to towers erected on agricultural land and areas within one mile of agricultural land (as defined by the Williamson Act) and to protect developers from conflicting marking requirements for local permits.  The bill requires towers between 50 and 200 feet high, to display orange and white striping, tracking balls on guy (support) wires and high visibility sleeves — consistent with recommended FAA standards for such structures.   A lighting requirement was dropped from the bill.

“AB 511 is a step in the right direction for pilot safety,” said Yamada.  “However, wind industry opposition to a mounted light requirement continues to put low-flying pilots—including those on public health and public safety missions—at risk.  We will continue to work with local governments to advise them of the need for higher standards for pilot safety,” Yamada continued.

AB 511 requirements become effective January 1, 2013 and apply to METs near agricultural land built on or after that date.